It Gets Worse

Travis Jeppesen at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival

Masao Adachi, Gushing Prayer: A Fifteen-Year-Old Prostitute, 1971, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 72 minutes.

IN THE TOTAL ABSENCE OF ANYTHING RESEMBLING A COHERENT AESTHETIC POSITION for most of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, one turned to its “Forum” section for some vestige of curatorial integrity. Here, viewers could take in such promising marvels as the almost four-hour feature An Elephant Sitting Still (2018), the first and last film by Chinese novelist Hu Bo, who took his own life last year at the age of twenty-nine; Grass (2018), yet another feature by the endlessly prolific Hong Sangsoo, who also had a film in Rotterdam (and will likely show work at Cannes and Venice); and, in the “Forum Expanded” exhibition of video art, new works by the likes of the Otolith Group, James Benning, and Jen Liu.

The “Forum” also included a tribute to Keiko Sato, the sole female producer of the Japanese “pink film” genre, with a screening of three of her films. The best of them, Masao Adachi’s Gushing Prayer: A Fifteen-Year-Old Prostitute (1971), an absurdist sex melodrama with antiauthoritarian overtones, called to mind the combative cinema of Weekend-era Godard. Encouraged by her high school gang of like-minded anti-sensualists, who engage in varsity-level group fucking to combat family, feeling, and society, Yasuko decides to become a whore in order to “beat sex.” Layered with quotes from Georges Bataille and excerpts from actual teenage suicide notes, Adachi’s film is a supreme affirmation of disorderly conduct as a disruptive tactic and the potential of jerky, irrational narrative.

Gerd Kroske, SPK Complex, 2018, color and black-and-white, sound, 111 minutes. Alfred Mährländer.

It is a film that would have been well understood by the members of the Socialist Patients’ Collective (SPK), founded in 1970 by Wolfgang Huber, a radical professor of psychiatry at the University of Heidelberg. The subject of a new documentary by Gerd Kroske, SPK Complex (2018), the group was a mainstay of the New Left in West Germany and was eventually torn apart by the police and legal system, after some of its members teamed up with the Red Army Faction. Huber was left destroyed by the long hours of solitary confinement in prison—to this day, no one knows his whereabouts, but many of the group’s other surviving members have been located, and they movingly recount their failed attempt to “weaponize illness” as a means of transforming society.

In the “Panorama” section, Partisan (2018), a documentary on the embattled Volksbühne, reflects on the legacy of former artistic director Frank Castorf, the renegade “classics butcher,” as he was deemed early on in his career by critics. Castorf brought Berlin’s avant-garde theater scene to international acclaim with his wild and unruly evocations of canonical works such as Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder (1892) and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880), in hysterically visceral, blood- and vomit-soaked scream sessions that could last up to six hours. Last year’s announcement that he would be replaced, after twenty-five years in the role, with former Tate Modern director Chris Dercon—a decision that led to mass protests and the resignation of practically the entire company—was seen by many as the final nail in the coffin of Berlin’s anarchic glory days of the 1990s, and a confirmation of the city elders’ intent in enacting neoliberal policies in the cultural sphere.

Lutz Pehnert, Matthias Ehlert, and Adama Ulrich, Partisan, 2018, color, sound, 130 minutes.

Indeed, the reality is that we have reached an era where Berlin’s hedonistic freedoms have been reduced to a marketing campaign aimed at tourists, where the vast potential in being a capital of an artistic vanguard has been distilled into soulless spectacles like the annual Gallery Weekend. Rich people are imported for ass-licking sessions at the sterile blue-chip spaces, boring dinners, and even more dismal parties that make the comatose seem lively by comparison. Rather than providing relief from this overriding tendency, the Berlinale is leadingly complicit. With director Dieter Kosslick on his way out, an aesthete, critic, or film scholar is now needed to resuscitate the festival and reduce its needlessly inflated program through a tightened focus on cinema without the air quotes. One hopes that the reshuffling will extend to the entire programming team, replacing them with a diverse and international cadre of respected, well-connected, and position-bound cineasts. In short, let’s bring perspective back into the equation. Until then, Berlin might as well replace its bear logo with a flat line.

The Sixty-Eighth International Filmfestspiele Berlin ran February 15 through 25.